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Remembering the boom of the 1980s, arts community braces for a downturn

Many areas of Alaska's economy have flourished since the 1980s. In urban centers, once-novel big box stores and other retail chains are commonplace, restaurants are more numerous and their menus more varied, tourist traffic is at record highs and hospitals and medical practices are doing brisk business.

The gradual growth of Alaska's consumer economy has also ushered in a plethora of places to show art -- coffee shops, restaurants, galleries, building lobbies and nonprofit spaces. And yet, longtime members of the Alaska arts community say the scene today, in terms of market activity, is nothing like it was in the early 1980s, a high-water period for big-ticket purchases and government funding.

Despite greater public exposure to fine Alaska art, major purchases are rarer today than they were in the early 1980s, said Julie Decker, director and CEO of the Anchorage Museum.

"I don't think Anchorage has ever seen a gallery scene like that before or since with frequent sales of big-dollar items. It's not something that happens anymore in Alaska," Decker said.

Then, large companies were filling new buildings with upmarket Alaska art. New homeowners with cash to spend and empty walls to fill flocked to galleries. Freshly arrived transplants bought paintings and carvings as mementos of their time in Alaska or as gifts for friends and family Outside.

"Alaska has been full of booms and busts, but in those years we could only see the boom," said Tennys Owens, owner of downtown Anchorage gallery Artique. "It was a wonderful time."

State arts funding is also lower today than it was during the '80s boom, a change that is manifest in the permanent collections of the state's three largest art museums.

"There is a lot from the late 1970's to mid-1980s, but after that, because there was just no acquisitions money to speak of, the collections are very thin from the mid-1980's to early 2000s when the Rasmuson Foundation (a non-profit) began to fund acquisitions of contemporary art from living Alaskans," said Fairbanks-based artist Kes Woodward.

As in every recession, there were winners. As funding dried up, artists who had followed the money to Alaska left, too, making room for young, local artists like painter Duke Russell.

"The oil crash had a positive effect on my situation," said Russell, who is known for his representational paintings of urban Alaska. "I got a job as a scenic artist at the Alaska Repertory Theater because they could not afford expensive New York painters. So that's how I got my start."

But that same theater couldn't outlast Alaska's recession. Lack of funding and a large operating deficit brought about its closure on December 31, 1988. The Visual Arts Center, one of the mainstays of the arts community, also closed.

Mariano Gonzales, a longtime art professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the downturn forced him to reconsider his work. Today his jewelry, sculpture, painting, photography and multimedia, which tends toward the edgy and subversive, sells better Outside than it does in Alaska, he said.

"In the days when there was money, I felt that I was more successful and accomplished than I really was," said Gonzales, whose show this year at the Anchorage Museum required a police inspection because it featured a piece with a highly realistic fake gun. "A lot of what I was doing was not very offensive."

Given past experience and the many unknowns ahead, the arts community is readying for a downturn.

"I think any reasonable nonprofit organization is bracing and preparing for what might happen -- not crisis prep, but belt-tightening prep," Decker said. "A recession will impact the business community and individual giving. We'll just have to see how much."

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